A Quiet Place

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Bending to drink / A. Sato

There are many distractions. Everything wants us, from the screens to the friends we have yet to call back, to the traffic honking, to the lists of endless things we have to do. This life can overwhelm us in every single instant.

Then, there is stillness. If we allow it to be.

Each morning I ask if I want the quiet. It is really my choice. If I allow the stillness, what will it ask from me?

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Launch / A. Sato

A story is told as much by silence as by speech.

— Susan Griffin

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Bee and wild raspberry / A. Sato

Our minds, as well as our bodies, have need of the out-of-doors. Our spirits, too, need simple things, elemental things, the sun and the wind and the rain, moonlight and starlight, sunrise and mist and mossy forest trails, the perfumes of dawn and the smell of fresh-turned earth and the ancient music of wind among the trees.

— Edwin Way Teale

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Cabbage White / A. Sato

I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright.

— Henry David Thoreau

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Come away / A. Sato

What you encounter, recognize or discover depends to a large degree on the quality of your approach. Many of the ancient cultures practiced careful rituals of approach. An encounter of depth and spirit was preceded by careful preparation.

When we approach with reverence, great things decide to approach us. Our real life comes to the surface and its light awakens the concealed beauty in things. When we walk on the earth with reverence, beauty will decide to trust us. The rushed heart and arrogant mind lack the gentleness and patience to enter that embrace.

― John O’Donohue, Beauty: The Invisible Embrace

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Small host / A. Sato

At a certain point, you say to the woods, to the sea, to the mountains, the world, Now I am ready. Now I will stop and be wholly attentive. You empty yourself and wait, listening. After a time you hear it: there is nothing there. There is nothing but those things only, those created objects, discrete, growing or holding, or swaying, being rained on or raining, held, flooding or ebbing, standing, or spread. You feel the world’s word as a tension, a hum, a single chorused note everywhere the same. This is it: this hum is the silence. Nature does utter a peep – just this one. The birds and insects, the meadows and swamps and rivers and stones and mountains and clouds: they all do it; they all don’t do it. There is a vibrancy to the silence, a suppression, as if someone were gagging the world. But you wait, you give your life’s length to listening, and nothing happens. The ice rolls up, the ice rolls back, and still that single note obtains. The tension, or lack of it, is intolerable. The silence is not actually suppression: instead, it is all there is.

― Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters

 

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At the table / A. Sato

Observing sacred mind in nature’s creativity can help us to reconnect to our own sacred mind as well. It releases a deep knowing that we inhabit a world rich with meaning—an ebbing and flowing ocean of intentionality that creates complex relationships between beautiful forms.

― Julie J. Morley, Future Sacred: The Connected Creativity of Nature

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Underworld / A. Sato

Who would deduce the dragonfly from the larva, the iris from the bud, the lawyer from the infant? …We are all shape-shifters and magical reinventors. Life is really a plural noun, a caravan of selves.

― Diane Ackerman

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Darner / A. Sato

Why are we such tortured human beings, with tears in our eyes and false laughter on our lips? If you could walk alone among those hills or in the woods or along the long, white, bleached sands, in that solitude you would know what meditation is. The ecstasy of solitude comes when you are not frightened to be alone no longer belonging to the world or attached to anything. Then, like that dawn that came up this morning, it comes silently, and makes a golden path in the very stillness, which was at the beginning, which is now, and which will be always there.

― Jiddu Krishnamurti, Meditations

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Wild chick / A. Sato

Away from the tumult of motor and mill

I want to be care-free;

I want to be still!

I’m weary of doing things; weary ofwords

I want to be one with the blossoms

and birds.

― Edgar A. Guest

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Corridor / A. Sato

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Circling Dragonflies

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Such is life. Detours must be made and straight lines lead nowhere. My friend and I decided we would find a waterfall. That was on the itinerary, but like most itineraries, they are subject to change and the change can be anyone’s guess. Change just is.

This was a planned trip to look for a specific waterfall in Rim country with my friend, T. We were both ready to escape the city and the bullshit of “the human world” and all of its trappings – including our fixation on work and *shoulds*. Off to the hills and mountains, away with the paperwork! I could almost hear myself internally breaking into bloom as we ascended to junipers, then pine, after leaving the paradise of the upland Sonoran ecotone.

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Loaded up with gummy bears and deep thoughts, we grabbed our packs and began walking along a long forest road (up Colcord Mountain, near Payson, AZ). After a few minutes, my friend brought up the strange crackling from above. We were amazed to find many cicadas lined up the arms of pine, oak, and underbrush, shedding their skins, as they were, to emerge and reproduce. Such a cacophony, the armored symphony of these Hemiptera.

There is nothing of absolute silence, even when you think there is. Underground and on land reverberations occur – life moves in the small measurement of time and space. It may be undetected by the human ear, as we are woefully unable to hear the inconspicuous acoustics of all that is.

 

What did we do when we couldn’t find this waterfall? First, we walked, trusting the journey would be what it would be. By staying alert, aware, and receptive, we saw what was glimpse-moments, and appreciated. After all, the subtleties are true gifts and we were grateful for them.

And so we walked again, as two friends who are capable of the spontaneity of not knowing. As two friends who appreciate the peace of silence, as not to disrupt the flow of whatever it is we were doing at the time.

Finally, we wandered to a new build site along the forest road and asked a local. He gave us detailed directions. Locals have a way of being receptive to just “shooting the shit.” It’s nice to have this relaxed way of engaging with strangers. Sometimes small talk can be big talk full of joy, curiosity, and wisdom, if a person allows it. The slow chit-chat of a rural place. I miss that syrup-speed on a hot day, along a random road.

Did we ever find this waterway? No. How can a single green gate be so elusive, especially when everyone else seemed to find it off of the main road. It was laughable. We did three attempts, and decided that this waterfall was not meant to be seen by us, at least not that day. What was awaiting us?

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Haigler Creek is one of my favorite go-to day dreaming, loafing around places. I can spend hours listening to the birds and the creek, and the occasional kid with their fisher dad at one of the bridges upstream. The day was warm enough to walk down the creek and away from other people and cars (although, to our delight, it was pretty low key). We crossed the creek and made our way through dappled cottonwoods, water-worn rocks with their patterned ripples and smooth curves, and canyon walls.

A wonderful species of dragonfly – Antillean Saddlebags, Tramea insularis – danced around us as we waded along the overgrown banks. This fiery-purple species was new to me and had me wondering why the hell I haven’t ever learned more about dragonflies and damselflies and their whimsical ilk. I’m always fascinated by anything winged and ancient looking, and this fantastic species had me tripping and slipping over the rocks to get a closer look, before they zipped away, circling their peers.

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Golden Columbine, Rocky Mountain Iris, Sand Verbena, Lupine, and various daisies and asters lined the water in lush bouquets. Painted Lady and Empress Leilia butterflies delighted in them. The steep banks of red quartzite and limestone offer several steps and ledges to the juniper hills above the canyon, should you decide that wading wasn’t probable.

For me, I love to splash and swim, and meander clumsily in water. The watery world continues to leave me wanting more, to wade into the understory of riparian trees and grasses and find the faeries. Instead, I come back to earth and the human world.

My companion and I spent our last hour sitting on the bank, examining wood and crayfish skeletons, moon-like drops of water on sedge. I thought of Emerson:

“To the attentive eye, each moment of the year has its own beauty, and in the same fields, it beholds, every hour, a picture which was never seen before, and which shall never be seen again.”

Never finding the falls was a gift. Being detoured is the delight of the patient and openhearted. There is always something to experience and be delighted by to the trained eye and attuned ear.

Swimming Holes & Lost Creeks

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West Clear Creek, A. Sato

As the temperatures climb here in the desert, I’ve had a strong urge to hit the creeks and rivers of the Central Region. Water in the desert can be hard to find, but I can rely on the Verde, Salt, and creeks like Cave Creek and Seven Springs, as well as Rose, Reynolds, and West Clear Creeks for a quick splash.

One of my favorite river spots to lull away the hours (or hike the surrounding Mazatzals) is Sheep Bridge. Sheep Bridge spans the Verde River, east of Perry Mesa, off of Bloody Basin Road. The ride down to the river is amazing, albeit rough, and you get a good sense of the enormity of the Mazatzal Wilderness and the expanse of the surrounding mesas.

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Sheep Bridge, A. Sato

 

On hot weekends, I can expect to see revelers heading in with their beat-up trucks and running circles with their OHVs. I want to scream at them about their behavior, but I remember what it is like to be poor and need an excuse to blow off steam. Unfortunately, in this case, it usually comes at the expense of the surrounding vegetation and wildlife.

I grew up poor and without a/c, so summers were always spent at our favorite swimming hole, much like those who enjoy the Verde. Our cherished spot when I was a kid was Salt Creek. My brothers and I would head down to the creek to catch crawdads (crayfish to polite folk), then jump into the cool depths using an old rope swing. I think the deepest hole was about 5 1/2 feet, just enough to cover your torso as you watched the leaves, branches, and occasional water moccasin float by.

The Salt Creek swimming hole was directly below an old highway, so we’d also explore the concrete barriers and blocks underneath, where drifters would camp and  would-be satanists gathered to spray-paint goat heads and pentagrams gaudily on the walls. There was actually a scare in the summer of 1984, that these ridiculous, misguided youth were killing both cats and blonde children. Hey, it was a small town and the best thing we had going for us was the rare stories of the grotesque and bizarre (like the great pyramid of Lawrence County).

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Salt Creek, Indiana

Other days, and when we’d have the gas money, we’d rumble down a country lane to get to Hardin Ridge (on Lake Monroe) with Big Red pops and various candy in tow. Lake Monroe is a reservoir just northwest of Needmore, my home town (apropos name for its poor residents). I learned to swim at the lake, after coming close to drowning a few times. Once, when I was a less than experienced swimmer, I swam across a cove to a small inlet. It was cold and at night, so I was terrified, but I made it. Funny thing, none of my peers or siblings dared me; I dared myself.

I remember one summer, when it was unseasonable hot and we were all too young to drive, we jumped into the cow pond on the forested land behind our house. It was a substantial pond, really, with stocked fish, but the local cattle decided that the pond was their bathtub, so we were forced to share. I was afraid of leaches, and sure enough, they were in there. That was the year my friends and I started to develop boobs. That whole event changed the dynamic of friendships entirely.

First, you could no longer be friends with the boys unless you tried really hard to prove yourself. This, I did. I joined their flag football games and caught frogs with the best of them. Second, comparison ran rampant among my girls. The girl with the biggest boobs was ostracized, as well as the flat-chested. Humans distrust any abnormality and gravitate toward what appears normal, safe. No wonder so we consider people to act in a herd-like manner, and why hate crimes, prejudice, and general ignorance run rampant. This, of course, is aside from the ingrained misogyny of our culture.

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Friendships and boys were divided, but the creeks remained. In the fall, there was a particular spot I’d like to run to when my home life was chaotic. I’d sit on the banks and watch the festively colored leaves be carried off by the water until I no longer felt anxious, only mesmerized by a much greater power than people.

These lessons stayed with me.

It’s getting too hot to camp in the Sonoran now, so I plot my stay along the Black River. My dogs will be happy to splash around, and that longing to give my cares to the water is wholly felt. The great stone spirits stand guard and the prisms of light reflect back into the sun, off of water, the Old God, the life force of everything animated. I can already feel it taking me away.

 

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Shooting Stars in the Sierra Ancha

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I recently returned from an overnight trip to the Sierra Ancha. This is a range that is close to my heart, because it was one I visited briefly during my first trip to Arizona after being gone for nearly 15 years.

As my friend Ellen likes to say, this place is special, sacred. You can feel it when you are here. Something of the ethereal is close to the skin. No wonder there are many sightings of monsters and ghosts, of messages on the wind and in strange dreams beneath glowing stars.

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We arrived in late morning, so I decided to hike down Rose Creek. Little did I expect, I encountered a small female bear. I was as stunned as she was. I have a certain level of fear about bears; they seem so unpredictable. Their demeanor can quickly change from aloof to threatening, and within seconds.

The bear looked at me, then Lily, my 13 pound dog. I realized that the only way out was to back up since we were surrounded by thick, thorny berry bushes. Lifting Lily high, we eased away, watching the coal black eyes look back at us. Thankfully, we escaped safely through the berry corridor.

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Roaming the back roads is always a part of any adventure that I consider an adventure, and Ellen and I set off for Buzzard Roost Canyon the next day. Rocking through the boulders and slopes, and down, down, down into the mouth of the canyon, we went far away from any human activity. Spotting perfect primitive camp sites and canyon songbirds lifting off of the schist and gneiss, what else is there but this?

 

Lying awake at midnight in my tent, listening to the soft steps of skunks along the creek, I am here. The immensity of the night sky overwhelms me. I wish for one star to fall. Minutes later, the blaze and the descent.

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Water in the desert is precious, and to find a flowing creek in the Sonoran is a magical thing. After miles of climbing and bumping down forest roads, we were delighted to find Spring Creek by way of Jerky Butte.

Even a shallow swimming hole can relieve a tired, hot traveler. I am a longtime traveler.

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Waking up at sunrise, I hiked along a new road that leads to a development that’s in an in-holding of the national forest. The illuminated cliffs of the Sierra Ancha Mountains caught first light. Being in deep canyons feels like I am returning to the quiet, still place where my true self emerges. The light shines on these places, but it occurs one hour at a time.

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If you pay close attention on any walk, you will notice things. Small things that can make you wonder why you ever thought you were alone.

 


Fall is my favorite season, which feels like a mere two weeks in AZ. I do love the winter months here, but sometimes I miss those real two-three months of serious autumn that I experienced in Indiana. The kind that reminds me of the fall foliage of my birthplace, the sound of the wood stove’s cracks-and-pops, feeling chilly enough to put on an extra big flannel shirt when the sun sets, and that deep, pungent odor of decay.

I savor it when I am in the mountains.

 

As with any range, a person can spend an entire lifetime exploring and never fully get a complete picture of all of its secrets. And, isn’t that the point, really, to know that a place is composed of so much enchantment it is impossible to contain?

When the disciples asked Jesus when the new world will come, he replied, “What you look forward to has already come, but you do not recognize it.” There is no outside heaven or planetary escape of tech fantasy. This is it. This is the kingdom.

I hope to continue to recognize it for years to come.

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Meditations on Water

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The trees reflected in the river – they are unconscious
of a spiritual world so near to them. So are we.

– Nathaniel Hawthorne

I seek out herons each morning, particularly the small green heron that graced the park over the summer. A neighbor saw a male arrive a few weeks ago and witnessed the most beautiful dance between the two herons, a mating ritual. Since then, we have not seen them.

As I sit beside the water’s edge, I imagine those two lovers busily building a nest on the Salt River, a river that used to run wild.

While I was looking closely for birds, I noticed the surface of the water and all of the life embodied in it, from the algae to the variety of insects that skipped over its surface. An iridescent dragonfly rested briefly on drift wood. A snapping turtle poked his head through the clear surface, creating small circles on the once still water – element meeting element.

The solitude of ponds, the ferocity of desert rivers in a monsoon, the arroyo holding deep pools of forgotten rain. These are the sacred moments, the natural movement of water. Water is not simply among us, it is us.

Except, we don’t see it that way. We turn to witness the degradation of dams and artificial pools meant to control, tame, and harness. How have we become so lost that we deny this essential God? Thinking we rule over it because we have the periodic table, we have its power.

We believe that we lord over all things, but the day will come when the tides change, as certain and abrupt as water.

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Water is life’s mater and matrix, mother and medium. There is no life without water.

– Albert Szent-Gyorgyi

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Estuaries are a happy land, rich in the continent itself, stirred by the forces of nature like the soup of a French chef; the home of myriad forms of life from bacteria and protozoans to grasses and mammals; the nursery, resting place, and refuge of
countless things.

– Stanely A. Cain

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A river seems a magic thing. A magic, moving,
living part of the very earth itself.

– Laura Gilpin

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To trace the history of a river, or a raindrop, as John Muir would have done, is also
to trace the history of the soul, the history of the mind descending and arising in the body.

In both we constantly seek and stumble on divinity, which, like the cornice feeding
the lake and the spring becoming a waterfall, feeds, spills, falls, and feeds itself
over and over again.

– Gretel Ehrlich, Sisters of the Earth

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Our bodies are molded rivers.

– Novalis

Do something… but what?

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Sometimes knowing what to do in the face of so much uncertainty, horror, and doubt leaves us feeling powerless. This is at least true for me. Our “calls to action” take us away from home and the animals and plants that inhibit our surroundings. When joining forces elsewhere isn’t possible, there is a tendency to read about and absorb what is happening “out there” and feel miserable. Maybe we throw a few dollars in aid, but there is this overwhelm that doesn’t leave.

To some extent, we are powerless… as individuals, at home, raging at the computer or television. I’ve started to feel like this way of being is depleting my spirit. I know that I personally will not solve problems by doing personal acts of resistance that are disengaged from others (wild others included) or what we are fighting: systemic and organized violence  (not joe neighbor who supports Trump, or your sister-in-law who still uses styrofoam).

But since I am not a great power, what can I do with the power I do have?
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I am not a marcher or letter writer. I’m more likely to go rehab a wild area where OHVs have done damage. Still, rehabbing that one area doesn’t guarantee it wont be destroyed again next Memorial Day weekend. It doesn’t eliminate the culture that says it’s macho to ride your quad over native plants.

So what do I do? What do you do?

I think that is where individual actions can feel fruitless unless you elevate them into more meaningful actions that can and do bear some results. Of course doing a river clean-up once and walking away from that river won’t have much benefit over time … But what about devoting myself to that river and the life it supports, and sticking with it? Even if it means bearing witness to outcomes that break my heart, or it puts me in situations where greater actions are called for.

To me, that is where these feelings of disconnect and uselessness begin to dissolve.

Back to the river…